There are two kinds of Shakespeare fanatics: The first group is down with the concept of William Shakespeare having written all the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. The second group believes anyone but William Shakespeare wrote the canon of sonnets and plays: It could have been Will’s young patron, the third earl of Southampton, or the proven Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth I in a secret need to hone another dimension of her marvelousness.
And why were Macbeth and King Lear and 35 other plays attributed to the wrong scribbler? It boils down to education. The anti-Shakespeares believe no middle-class lad reared in a 16th century rustic town like Stratford-On-Avon could have learned enough to write about the Trojan War. He couldn’t have picked up enough Latin to order a snack at a Franciscan monastery, much less to be able to read the texts the author of Julius Caesar would have researched.
Moreover, what little we know about Will makes him out to be a bit of a Milquetoast. The only real life he lived, apparently, occurred at the age of 18 when he knocked up a woman of 26 named Anne Hathaway, before absconding to London to break into show business. While he paid his wife a yearly visit during the 40 days of Lent, fathered two more children, and supported his family in a style that reflected his evolving success in London’s theatre world, he may have bourne a heavy stigma of desertion. After that, all we know about him is that he worked as an actor, became a major player in The Globe Theatre, bought expensive property in later years, and continued, up until the time he moved back to Stratford in 1607, to write at a furious pace.
The reason Will’s personality, unlike his plays and 154 sonnets, fails to shine through the ages is twofold. One, workaholic writers are too busy inventing characters to invent one for themselves. Two, he described everyone and every thing under the sun; his omniverous genius left no human mood or motive or incidents of the sacred or profane unexamined. As Aldous Huxley wrote in 1945 about Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre, “If you say absolutely everything, it all tends to cancel out into nothing. Which is why no explicit philosophy [or personality] can be dug out of Shakespeare.”
In The English Channel, running at the Vineyard Playhouse until Sept. 29, written by Robert Brustein — Vineyarder, founding director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre, former Harvard professor of English and current Harvard Senior Research Fellow, author of five full-length plays, 14 books on theatre, including an upcoming book on Shakespeare (and these are only a handful of Mr. Brustein’s credits) — a new explanation for Shakespeare’s explosive talent is furnished: Will was channeling the ghost of Christopher Marlowe.
Of course, Mr. Brustein only offers the theory as a witty metaphor, at the same time tipping his hat to Shakespeare’s own heavy-handed use of ghosts, ghouls, and the entire Elizabethan pantheon of the supernatural to spice up his plays for the huddled masses — though an honest highbrow member of the audience will admit, then and now, that these special effects work for the literate just as well.
The English Channel opens with a salute to the ghosts of Hamlet’s dad and Banquo: Out of stage right darkness, a macabre red light picks up the bloody-eyeball face of the slain Marlowe (Sean Dugan), howling with rage and pain in rhymed iambic pentameter. Then lights come up, the figure rips off his gory eyepatch, and he slips back into the life he was leading in the year leading up to his murder. “There are no ghosts except in playhouses,” reflects the ghost of Marlowe near the end of the play.
It’s 1593, a plague year in London. The theatres have been shut down, so young Will (Gabriel Field), in desperate need of money, patronage and his first big break, is hunkered down in a room above a tavern. Scattered about are props and costumes that the temporarily defunct Globe has stored with him. His first visitor is the dashing playwright and sonneteer, secret agent and open homosexual Marlowe, who is contemptuous of Shakespeare’s stealing of more successful writers’ work, including Marlowe’s own. He sneers at the younger playwright’s ransacking of old books, and lays it at the feet of Will’s lack of originality. Will shrugs: all the stories have already been written; it’s simply a question of recycling them. And now we see another facet of the future most accomplished writer in English literature: he’s a thief.
Another guest in Will’s dark chambers is the spoiled, arrogant, bisexual young Earl of Southampton (Alex Pollock), irate that Shakespeare has written sonnets about him without his excellency’s permission, including the immortal lines, “From fairest creatures [meaning the earl] we desire increase,/ That thereby beauty’s rose might never die.” Naturally Will would love permission, which would translate into commission: Southampton comes up with some coins, and the young poet’s flattery, on paper and in person, becomes sickeningly sycophantic. Thus do we see one of the Bard’s (and every other writer’s down through the millennia) facets, that of the hustler.
Another pivotal visitor is Emilia Lanier (Merritt Janson), flutist courtesan, and hanger-on at the royal court, Italian Jewess, published poet, forerunning feminist and Mr. Brustein’s candidate for the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Into this brew of boy loves boy, girl loves boys, boy panders for playwright, and playwright venerates boy (if he’s well-enough paid), Mr. Brustein introduces a mix of incipient rebellion, recusant Catholics including, possibly, Will, betrayal, and temporary redemption from a night of great sex. Through it all, Shakespeare constantly leaps mid argument and mid love, to his desk, takes up his quill, and transforms the living moment to the perennial page. It’s here that we see the facet that makes of Shakespeare, the living man, so bland an enigma: He holds up the mirror to Nature, never to his own reflection.
But Mr. Brustein holds up the mirror to Shakespeare’s art with echoes of many of the Bard’s most celebrated soliloquies of the future, with playful splashes of alliteration and the master playwright’s ability, like a crazed traffic cop, to get all vehicles, i.e., characters, colliding with one another.
The language of The English Channel is just modern enough and iambic-pentametered enough that we understand it perfectly without losing our suspension of disbelief. Wesley Savick, director, has acted in or directed over 70 professional productions, most of them new works. Ms. Janson brings alive the dark lady’s mystery, passion and independence, suggesting a template for all of Shakespeare’s great heroines. Mr. Field is hilarious as the Great Elizabethan Nerd. Mr. Dugan makes a charismatic and reckless Marlowe. Mr. Pollock is a marvel as the monstrous aristocrat, Southampton, adrip with cynicism and hauteur, mincing of step yet ferocious in the delivery of sinister wit. For Shakespeare to write of the youngster as the “fairest creature” was to stretch the limits of writing for hire.